OK, so maybe it is an easy decision. After all, Ohtani has struggled on the mound and at the plate in his limited exposure in spring training games. In two spring starts, he allowed nine hits and nine runs in 2⅔ innings, flashing plus stuff but also struggling with his command and serving up three home runs. At the plate, he has gone 3-for-28 with nine strikeouts, three walks and no extra-base hits.
Much of his pitching work has come on the back fields, including an 85-pitch outing in an intrasquad game Saturday against Angels’ minor leaguers. While Angels manager Mike Scioscia called it a “great outing,” Ohtani threw 47 of the 85 pitches for strikes but walked five batters, hit another and threw two wild pitches. ESPN’s Jesse Rogers reported that Ohtani’s fastball was 92-94 mph, down from his previous outings. Through his interpreter, Ohtani said after the game that he was working on his splitter and breaking ball more than his fastball, which is probably why his velocity was down a bit. Hmm.
Maybe the Angels feel obligated to keep Ohtani on the major league roster. After all, they were handed a gift when Ohtani selected them over the other teams, and I doubt their sales pitch included Ohtani starting the season in Salt Lake City.
Still, the Angels have a long-term commitment to Ohtani and they need to do what’s best for his development and what’s best right now for the franchise. That means starting him in the minor leagues, where he can find his fastball command, have a few good outings and get at-bats without everyone focused on whether he’s going to be the Babe Ruth of Anaheim on March 29.
Saturday’s outing seemed like a possible harbinger of a minor league assignment. Using major league starters on the back fields for minor league games has become a trend in recent seasons, but this felt like a deliberate attempt to give Ohtani a low-pressure environment. The Angels needed him to get his pitch count up, so this also provided a controlled situation to do that. In a regular spring game, for example, if his pitch count in one inning got up to, say, 30, they would likely want to remove him and he’d have to finish throwing on the side. In a controlled scrimmage, you can end the “inning” at any point.
That’s sort of the point, however: The Angels couldn’t trust Ohtani to get through 85 pitches in a spring game, so that hardly makes him ready for a major league game. Scioscia may have called it a great outing, but clearly walking five batters — minor league batters — in six innings is a sign that he’s not ready to start on, say, April 2 against the Cleveland Indians in the Angels’ home opener. Those lights are a lot bigger than the ones on a back field in Tempe.
Ohtani said he’s ready. “I feel like I’ve done everything I can get to get ready for Opening Day and I felt like I’ve done everything 100 percent, but it’s hard. Every other year, even in Japan, I was never 100 percent on Opening Day, so it’s going to go gradually into the season. I think it’s going to be the same this time.”
Asked when he’s pitching next, he responded, “Please ask Mike Scioscia.”
If that’s the case, it’s all the more reason for him to start in Triple-A. Remember, because of an ankle injury, he pitched just 25 innings in Japan last year. His command was lacking then as well, as he walked 19 batters. So some of this is probably just rust from a pitcher trying to find his 2016 form, when he posted a 1.86 ERA and fanned 174 batters in 140 innings.
The bat is another issue entirely. There’s a reason there hasn’t been a true two-way player since Ruth: It’s hard! The hitting side of the equation is going to be even more problematic to work out. How much patience will Scioscia have with him? He obviously needs at-bats to adjust to major league fastballs, but if he struggles at the plate from the onset, is Scioscia willing to give him 300 plate appearances? The Angels are a potential playoff team, and if Ohtani starts the season going 7-for-49 (or something similar to that) it will be easy for Scioscia to give those at-bats to Chris Carter or Luis Valbuena and keep Albert Pujols as the full-time DH.
Of course, if the Angels do send him down, they’ll be accused of doing so simply to manipulate his service time, as the Atlanta Braves did with Ronald Acuna. There is enough evidence to justify the move, though. Ohtani seems aware that he may not make the Opening Day roster.
“Honestly, I don’t know how people up there are making decisions like that, what they think of me at this point,” he said Saturday. “I try not to worry about that. I’ve been having the same approach since my days in Japan. It’s not really up to me; it’s up to other people.”
There is enormous pressure on this kid, with all the hype, the expectations, the throng of Japanese reporters following his every movement. He’s trying to do something no player has done at the major league level in 100 years, all while adapting to a new culture. There’s nothing wrong with easing him into that situation. He should start the season at Triple-A.